The first railway in Ireland was opened to the public on December 17th 1834 and comprised a 6mile long section of track linking Dublin with Dun Laoghaire, or Kingstown as it was then known, to the south of the city. Though the line carried passengers it was not built for this service, but rather to provide a cheaper and quicker method of bulk transport from Dun Laoghaire port with the then capital. Dublin’s own port had become choked with silt forcing larger goods vessels to Dun Laoghaire instead. The economic success of this line prompted a surge in railway building throughout the country, though in comparison with the mainland construction was slow. (Image: Northern Ireland railway system in 1922. After McCutcheon.)
The next line to be built was a seven mile track between Belfast and Lisburn by the Ulster Railway Company (later amalgamated into the Great Northern Railway) which opened in 1839; this was extended to Portadown in 1841 and to Armagh in 1848. At Portadown, a second main junction was built linking the town to Dungannon (and later Omagh) in the west and to Dundalk and Dublin in the south. To the north the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway built a line between Belfast and Ballymena in the 1840’s, which included stations at the towns of Antrim and Randalstown on the northern shore of Lough Neagh. A secondary line built between 1853 and 1860 extended from Randalstown to Cookstown via Magherafelt and incorporated two great feats of engineering; the viaduct over the River Maine at Randalstown, and the bridge over the Lower Bann at Toome. (Image: Railway bridge over Lower Bann at Toome. )
To the east a line extending from Lisburn to Antrim via Glenavy and Crumlin was constructed by the Dublin and Antrim Junction Railway Company between 1864 and 1871 (later amalgamated into the Great Northern Railway). Finally a line from Dungannon to Cookstown via Coalisland was completed by the Great Northern Railway between 1877 and 1879. Thus by 1879 the whole of the Lough Neagh basin was enclosed by a railway system and linked to the major ports of Coleraine, Newry, Dublin and most importantly Belfast. The main aim of railway companies was to compete for business with the canals, whose system in Ulster centred on Lough Neagh. By linking the Lough Neagh basin the railways provided an alternative route for the mid and west Ulster manufacturers and farmers and ended the domination previously held by the canal companies.
Following the First World War and the development of better road systems, there was a decline in traffic volume on both passenger and goods which continued into the 1950’s and resulted in many services being withdrawn throughout Northern Ireland. For fear of complete closure of the railway system the Stormont Government established the Northern Ireland Railways Company Ltd (NIR) to restructure and develop rail transport throughout the province. Despite this most of the system linking Lough Neagh has been closed and the tracks removed. Only the track between Lisburn and Antrim Junction remains in use today. (Image: Dismantling Toome railway bridge.)